It was the waning days of 2017, and Andrews McMeel was looking to make a change. The venerable comic “Nancy” had been around for eight decades, and the syndicate was seeking to give the once-highly popular strip a creative transfusion with some new blood.
But where to turn?
“When we were thinking about people to approach — as well as reviewing pitches from other very talented cartoonists — we weren’t only looking at people who had a track record in syndication,” says Andrews McMeel editor Shena Wolf.
Casting a wide net was wise: From the world of webcomics, they found a young woman whose comic style and original voice exquisitely suited their needs.
The artist Olivia Jaimes made her debut as “Nancy’s” cartoonist one year ago Tuesday — the first woman to shepherd the strip, as well as the first of its eight notable creators who didn’t take a traditional path to newspaper print syndication.
Any shift in a legacy comic’s look and tone always rattles some fans. But Jaimes’s ironic and modern approach to “Nancy” was such a distinct departure from the previous team of Guy and Brad Gilchrist that the comment threads on the strip’s GoComics.com syndicate page crackled for months, sparking a new heat around the staid feature.
As “Nancy” fans traded diatribes on the site about the strip’s updated direction — including cheeky references to current tech — new readers and news outlets began to take notice. By last September, when a Jaimes strip spawned the meme “Sluggo is lit,” the revivified “Nancy” — which had reached its commercial zenith decades ago under Ernie Bushmiller — was once again a cultural hit.
“Olivia has re-energized the comic and brought new generations of fans to the strip who either didn’t know or forgot it existed,” says John Glynn, president of Andrew McMeel Syndication. “We couldn’t be happier with what’s happened with ‘Nancy.’ ”
That creative energy has resulted in a 400 percent spike in “Nancy” traffic on GoComics.com compared with the year prior, says the syndicate. And sales have nearly doubled since Jaimes inherited the strip, with its client list nearing 140 newspapers.
That popularity is fueling other “Nancy” projects. Two books are due out in the fall, a board game is in the works, and the syndicate says it is finalizing a deal with a major streaming service for animated entertainment.
Jaimes says the massive response to her start with “Nancy” has been affirming, though she notes that she has a protective policy to filter out the haters: “Read no comments or coverage but occasionally be spoon-fed nice things other people have said by my editor — [that] has worked great.”
“Everyone should keep giving her nice things to screenshot for me.”
As Jaimes’s editor, Wolf knew just what she had in hand — but that didn’t mean readers would soon flock with such clarity.
“I was definitely surprised that people recognized its brilliance so quickly. I had a lot of faith in the work and I assumed that it would take off, but I had thought that it would take a little longer,” says Wolf, who has also developed such popular newer strips as “Phoebe and Her Unicorn,” “Breaking Cat News” and “Wallace the Brave.”
Jaimes had spent years working in her own style, so adapting to the demands of an existing feature took no small adjustment.
“The hardest thing is drawing Nancy’s lower face with a consistent shape. The easiest thing is adding the hair spikes — they’re just short lines,” says Jaimes, who continues to lace the strip with meta-commentary about an artist’s style and creativity.
Hilary Price, the Silver Reuben Award-winning creator of the syndicated strip “Rhymes With Orange,” points to three crucial aspects in the resurgence of “Nancy.”
“First, let’s talk about the character Nancy: 100 percent geek, 0 percent meek — [and] unapologetic about either,” Price says. “Nancy fills a void of quirky, independent girlhood left by Alice Otterloop in the late Richard Thompson’s ‘Cul De Sac.’ “
Price, who penned an essay for one of the forthcoming “Nancy” books, also underscores what is special about Jaimes’s path to syndication.
“Her generation of cartoonists used pixels instead of pens and mounted their work online — a place where space is cheap and plentiful and open to all kinds of people, and therefore nothing like the newspaper comics page,” says Price, noting that she’s been a Jaimes fan for a decade. (“She was the very first webcomic artist that I ever followed.”)
Jaimes’s type of crossover success could become more common, as syndicates continue to look to webcomics for rising talent.
“Everyone in the comic-strip business is trying to crack the code on how to make money in a world that wants their news but not their newspaper,” Price says. “Olivia’s humor works for the online-only crowd and old-school subscribers like myself, so ‘Nancy’s’ readership can grow in both the digital and print world. Andrews McMeel was smart to bring on someone with dual citizenship.”
Wolf says such crossover appeal by the new “Nancy” is encouraging.
“I was very gratified to see the online community embracing the humor and the weirdness as much as they did,” says the editor at the Kansas City-based syndicate. “I think it’s just a matter of the work finding its audience in a time where there’s a straight-line connection between those things.”
Even as “Nancy” succeeds with shifting commercial times for syndicates, Jaimes says she hasn’t given up her day job outside of comics.
“I’d actually recommend people think very critically about it before making a go at a career in comics,” Jaimes says. “You don’t have to make the thing you love your job. Prioritize your own emotional well-being above ‘making it’ in any classical sense.”
Still, the “Nancy” renaissance has only encouraged the syndicate about the strip’s ability to continue to soar under Jaimes.
Says Glynn: “It’s been one hell of a year for Nancy and Sluggo . . . and Olivia.”